Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2021
Winner of The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award in 2021 for unpublished manuscripts by writers under the age of 35
This debut novel by Emma Batchelor charts the breakdown of her relationship with her partner who discloses that ‘they’ are transgender. Whilst this narrowly specific scenario is not one that readers might automatically identify with, that of relationship breakdown and loss is certainly very common.
The book has been classified (by the author also) as auto-fiction. The line between ‘fact’ and fiction is thus blurred, but we do have the sense that what we are reading carries a great deal of verisimilitude. In any case, the intimacy and rawness of this account are deeply affecting.
The story is told using a skilful blend of third and first person narration, journal entries and emails. We are drawn inexorably into the mental distress of the author as she struggles to make sense of change. Her loss is not merely one of a relationship but a far greater loss of self.
The diarising of this process of personal disappearance, of shame, of self-blame, of self-questioning, draws a heart-rending picture of the sense of abandonment and grief, and of being demeaned, that she felt.
The author’s personal disintegration into a deep depression as she struggles to understand what has happened and why she cannot control it, why she is not able to make things work somehow is written in great detail. She tells us of her inability to even get out of bed some days, her suicidal thoughts and her obsession with trying to support her partner – to her own detriment.
A combination of good psychological counsel through a mental health plan and the support of friends and family pull her through the worst of times. The ability to speak about what is happening to some people, if not to all, provides some measure of salvation. The writing of the book in some ways is just this, the chance to share a truth that seemed at one time so shameful it had to remain hidden.
Happily therefore, there is hope in this story, one which ends with the notion of possibility. The work is poignant and troubling, and it will raise questions for many readers. Indeed, perhaps this is one of its great strengths, the capacity to carry us into places we have not been and yet which are all too familiar in the broadest sense. After all, most of us experience loss, grief, periods of self-doubt and intense sadness, low times that seem impossible to leave behind – and yet we do leave them behind. And so has the author; she’s on the way at least, as are we all.
This is deft and clever writing by an emerging author of whom we are sure to hear more.
Thank you Allen & Unwin for the review copy and Emma for the great pleasure of speaking with you.